Four High Houses ruled the great city. All the other houses were left to vie for their favor—whether the lower houses liked it or not. The Ace of the House Pumpkins had been invited to dinner at the House of Clovers.
It was a custom, a tradition of the house, to invite one and only one guest from among the lower houses. And it was a custom for this guest to be the guest of honor at the dinner.
The Pumpkin Ace did not know whether to expect favor and praise or horrific humiliations.
She only knew that any who left the table may not return. She only knew that the price for leaving the table before her host might be a terrible one. Might be. Her triumph or her doom depended upon the whims and fancies of her esteemed host, the King of the House of Clovers…
When at last, the Ace of Pumpkins emerged from the kitchens to mingle with the other guests, she felt neither on edge nor at ease. She felt neither curious nor indifferent. Her only aim, as it had been when she first crossed the threshold into the great green manor house, was to survive the evening and find herself home in her own bed, comfortably forgotten by her fellow guests.
She swept past a trio of ladies, one of them lazily fanning herself with a fan whose ridges were set with tiny rubies. Surely, she was producing no refreshing breeze. The Ace concluded that the fan’s purpose was to show off the sparkling gems. Another one of the ladies wore a perfume that reminded the Ace of green apples and mint. It was not unpleasant. The third lady’s glance flicked toward the Ace for the briefest of moments, before returning to the card held in her gloved hand. Written upon the parchment card in a refined but readable script was the menu for that evening’s dinner.
The Ace’s own gloves were of black velvet lined in fleece, a sturdy protection against the frigid night to come. But that lady’s sheer silken gloves could not have guarded her fingers from much more than the first friendly breeze on a spring morning.
Yet also, it was warm in the receiving room, from the three fires that were burning in three separate fireplaces. The Ace of Pumpkins had removed her gloves when she felt the beginnings of a sweat forming at her temple.
She made her way to the point in the room furthest from every one of the fires. She passed a man who was stooping in a strange way, though he was not particularly tall, and had no need to avoid brushing against the crystal chandelier hanging above his head. But she noted that there were a few gentlemen taking that posture, all of them quite young. A strange fashion, perhaps.
Another man spoke with a clearly affected accent that sounded suspiciously like a real accent from the southern part of their vast city. Ace moved away so that the chatter of others would mask the man’s butchering exaggeration of what was otherwise a charming pattern of speech.
She was surprised to see that not everyone was wearing finery. But then she supposed they must be the highest among them, so high they need not follow the rules of propriety or law, even amongst their own fellow elites.
The Ace braced herself for rude comments about her own attire, a black suit with orange accents, and the symbol of her humble house pinned upon her left lapel. She expected perhaps some comment on how her house was ruled by the Jack instead of the King or the Queen. But then she realized that such comments would require anyone present to know who she was. It seemed that the dinner guests would have only been interested if she had been a guest of some import, as Aces were in some houses.
She did not try to speak to anyone, but only glided past them, as unnoticed as the servants, who moved among the guests carrying bowls of fresh water with herbs and flowers petals floating within. The Ace watched other guests dip their hands in the bowls and delicately pat them dry with the stark white towels folded beside each bowl. And so, she did the same when a bowl of herbs and petals was presented to her.
And she waited until the announcement came that the guests were to be seated.
Though the Ace of Pumpkins was the guest of honor, she was not seated at the end of the table, for that seat was reserved for the host’s closest companion. Guests whispered that the Queen of Clovers would not be joining the dinner that year. The seat would remain empty. There were times when the Ace appreciated the attention of others, but so were there times when she appreciated being unseen. And at the moment, she was pleased to be unseen.
So was she pleased at the speed with which the guests were seated and served the first course. Their host had not even yet arrived. And the head servant made no announcements on the matter.
When the plates were set before the guests, Ace was surprised by the sparse offering.
It was the first course. She of course expected it to be small. But the objects placed upon her plate would not have sated a mouse. They amounted to little more than three tiny kidney beans.
From the whisperings of her nearest fellow guests, she was not the only one who was perplexed by the course. But no one remarked on the other strange element of their table. The Ace peered at the tiny hourglass placed beside her plate, and each of other guest’s plates, just above the cutlery on the right side.
Before the plates were all set, another group of servants came down the table, holding dark amber vials. They pulled out little droppers filled with a clear liquid, tinged ever so softly with orange. The color made the Ace smile inwardly, for orange was one of her colors. When a single drop fell on the plate of sparse offerings, the food enlarged within seconds. Where there had been no aroma, there was now the scent of spice and sauce. There was now steam rising from what appeared to be tiny dumplings.
One of the guests several seats away from the Ace and on the same side of the table, exclaimed in pleasure and began to eat right away. Ace turned her head and tilted it forward to watch the man take one bite, then another, proclaiming he’d starved himself all day, so he could tuck in at the feast.
But suddenly, he gasped and fell face first into his plate, his spoon clattering to the tiled floor. His wife cried out and pulled him back. A servant stepped forward to assist her. They wiped the man’s face.
“He’s not breathing!” his wife said.
It was at that moment that their host swept by, the King of the House of Clovers.
“Patience, dear guests!” their host proclaimed. “You need wait at least one full minute before you take your next bite. Else the poison will work on you as well.”
A few people whispered to each other, asking if the man was dead, as a servant carried him away, his wife sobbing and following after them with stuttering steps. But none dared to direct the question to their host himself.
“Worry not,” said the Clover King. “Your fellow is merely…sleeping. The First Highest would have my head, all our heads likely, if she were to discover that someone actually died at a simple yearly feast.”
By First Highest, he meant the Diamond Queen, who was not in attendance, but would most certainly learn of all the doings and goings-on at the dinner through her many loyal emissaries.
Their host took his seat at the head of the table. Ace had lost her appetite, and noted that many of the other guests had as well. She hoped their host would explain any further rules before anyone else began eating, but he said nothing further. He was served, and his taster sampled his plate and stepped back, none the worse for wear. Their host surveyed the table. But he did not yet touch his own food. And so, neither did anyone else. He noted this and insisted that everyone start eating and enjoying their evening. There was the clinking of fork against plate, as the guests prepared to do as their host bid them to do, but also waited for someone else to go first.
The Ace of Pumpkins saw and felt many a glance flicking toward her.
Ah, now I am noticed, she thought, as she realized that many likely believed that this was the purpose she was meant to serve. To be the first to eat, and thus reveal another rule or trick that the other guests may then avoid.
The Ace would not disappoint her fellow guests. She did not begin to eat. She raised her hand and looked directly at their host. When he noticed and nodded to her, picking up his wine goblet, the Ace rose from her chair. She kept her left palm resting on the table to signify that she had not left the table though she had risen from her seat.
“Gracious host and honored guests,” she said. “I am the Ace of the humble House of Pumpkins. I first thank my host for his generous invitation.” She paused to allow their host to respond. He did so with a slurping sip of his wine. “I have a question for our host, if I would be permitted to ask it.”
The Ace heard the catching of breaths, glimpsed from the side of her vision the clutching of necks, and even noted a groan from somewhere behind her.
The King of Clovers set down his emerald-studded goblet and nodded.
“What other rules are there, sire, to the eating and enjoyment of this fine dinner?” the Ace asked. “I am certain that all present would not wish to insult our host by having to leave the table out of necessity, simply because we did not follow a rule we might have easily learned.” She sat back down.
Their host rose as well, keeping two fingers upon the table’s surface. He declared that though he allowed that a question be asked did not mean it would be answered. He sat back down and took up his goblet again, taking a swallow of wine. Again, there was clinking of metal upon glass, and one person even raised to her mouth a spoon with a dumpling resting upon it. She kept it hovering, taking a breath as if bracing herself.
Then their host spoke. “However,” he said, “I will answer the question that has been posed by our guest of honor.” He held his goblet out to the side, waiting for it be filled before he spoke again.
He placed his opposite hand upon his chest. “There are three virtues I hold dear,” he said. “One of them, as you all have learned, is patience.”
All waited, but he said no more.
And Ace felt eyes upon her again, as if the other guests were entreating her to ask another question. Ace felt a looming behind her. A few guests sitting across from her looked up over her shoulder, signaling to her that someone—a servant or a guard perhaps—had stepped into position just behind her chair. She wondered then if it would have been wiser to eat a bite every minute and hope that another guest discovered the other rules. But if she had already doomed herself, it would make no difference for her to ask another question. Perhaps there was a guest present who might be inclined toward gratitude. It would make no difference at the dinner, but afterwards…
Before the Ace decided whether to speak again or not, their host addressed her.
“Now, as you have asked me a question,” their host said, drawing the Ace’s attention, “I will ask you one. And as I have answered your question, you owe me an answer to mine.”
The Ace inclined her head.
Their host gulped his wine and set his goblet down. “Why did you come here tonight?”
“I was invited,” the Ace replied.
The King of Clovers dismissed her answer with the wave of his hand. “But what did you hope to gain?”
The Ace of Pumpkins paused and considered her answer. She deemed it unwise to admit that her only aim for the evening was to survive, sound of body and mind, and make it back home before bedtime, perhaps with a story to tell, or perhaps with a story she would take to her grave. For she had heard only rumors about the dinner, some accounts of gruesome deeds, some merely of debaucheries, and even a few tales of silly but honest merriment.
She deemed it unwise to admit that she would much rather have been at the All Spirits’ Eve feast that the Seven Houses of Harvest threw each year.
She was guest of honor. She might be allowed such boldness, such presumption. She had been given no rules of behavior, no list of what was forbidden to her and what was allowed. But a guest of honor must be afforded some privileges, she guessed, for why else would they be called such?
She found a true answer among the many that swirled in her thoughts. “I hoped to gain an understanding for myself, sire, of what this dinner’s entails.”
Their host glanced down at his uneaten food. “What does that mean?”
“If it would be just a dinner, or a game.”
He reached for a spoon. “Then you have your answer.”
Their host smiled and raised his gaze and his goblet to the rest of his guests.
“Eat!” he said. “There is nothing to fear.”
The King of Clovers fell silent. The Ace of Pumpkins too said nothing more.
This is reckless, she thought to herself. She raised her spoon, scooped a warm dumpling onto it, and ate her first bite of food. She turned over her minute-glass. When the sand ran out, she swept another dumpling into her mouth. She turned over her minute-glass again.
The Ace had taken three bites before their host pounded his fist on the table, and demanded that they all begin eating.
The other guests, whether comforted by Ace’s continued survival, or compelled by their host’s burst of …insistence, began to eat.
“We must wait until he’s drunk,” someone whispered beside Ace, “then he’ll tell us.”
“Go slow, my friends. Go slow,” their host proclaimed, with sudden gentleness. “This is just the first of twelve courses.”
The Ace held back a frown. She would not make it through twelve courses if she finished everything she was served. She must take only a few bites, and let the rest go to needless waste. Even as she thought so, she realized that she was still hungry, though she had finished her first plate.
It was then that their host, though unasked, revealed another surprise. “Worry not, guests, our food is enchanted,” he said. “It is enchanted so that none of us will feel queasy or have need to relieve ourselves before the dinner is done. So, let us not speak of such unseemly things as stomachs sloshing and bladders bursting. And do follow the rules.”
The man sitting beside Ace whispered again to his companion. “How can we follow the rules if we don’t know what they are?”
“Could anyone here know what the other two virtues can be?” his companion replied.
The Ace of Pumpkins pondered the consequences of the two choices that she could make. She could leave the table, and forfeit her stature as guest of honor. At best she might be allowed to leave the house without harm, if her host’s whims swung towards mercy, or more likely forgetfulness. At worst, she would belong to the House of Clovers. She would be stripped of her rights and rank and made to work in the clover fields, searching for the emerald clover, a false dream had by the King. She would never lay eyes on her home again. It would not matter if the King was drunk or not. He would have given his guards his commands before the dinner began. And only he could overturn those commands. As such, it made more sense for Ace to ensure that their host remained generally sober and in good spirits, good and generous spirits.
The next two courses passed without incident, though the Ace of Pumpkins was growing hungrier. She noted that some of guests were as well. She heard the rumbling of bellies. And she heard a guest ask in a whisper if the food was made out of air.
An illusion? the Ace wondered.
With the fourth course came the next revelation.
Upon a single bite, one of the ladies seated opposite to Ace and a few chairs away, cried out and clutched her elbows. The dress she wore left her arms bare, and she had removed her long gloves so that she may pick up the savory roll without staining her gloves with butter and cheese.
Boils and hives were rising and spreading across the reddened skin of her arms. Her face remained clear but sweat seemed to squeeze out of every pore. Some of her boils burst and began to ooze. A few guests, though they had apparently eaten nothing but air, turned away and retched. One man jumped back and out of his seat, turning away, a fist held against his mouth. All of them had just forfeited their rights to remain at the table. The woman with the boils had remained seated however. One of the other ladies beside her, the Deuce of the House of Diamonds no less, dipped her napkin in a fresh goblet of iced water, and asked the servants to bring more. She wrapped the soaked napkins around the neck and arms of the woman with the boils, who seemed to draw some relief from the treatment.
“Can you guess then, what the second virtue is?” their host asked.
The Ace of Pumpkins glanced at him and noted that he was looking at her.
She had been watching, but she could hardly watch every guest at every moment, and watch the King, and keep eating her empty meal. She had no idea. She had not particularly noticed the woman with the boils. She only noted that the lady had just removed her gloves.
“Cleanliness,” said the Deuce of Diamonds. “She did not rinse her hands in the fresh water bowl before she reached for the bread.”
The King clapped his hands. And the Ace regarded the Deuce. While the Deuce frowned darkly, and tended to her fellow lady.
They completed their course, with all guests now being meticulous about their habits of cleaning their hands, faces, and their plates.
Reckless, the Ace of Pumpkins thought, raising her hand as the course was cleared away.
Their host did not acknowledge her this time. The other guests dipped their hands in the water bowls, or fretted over their minute-glasses, or tried to steady trembling hands. The woman with the boils, and the man who fell unconscious, neither were dead, and neither would ever recover from their ordeals. The Ace was certain of that. And she suspected that her fellow guests were certain as well. Already the boils were crusting over and splitting into bleeding sores, and the poor woman groaned and clutched herself. She flinched away now when her bandages of soaked napkins were changed. She shivered as she slowly chewed upon the last of her savory roll, wincing as she swallowed. The Ace noted the pin upon the lady’s shoulder, a red pin in the shape of a heart.
I risk us all, the Ace considered. Then she rose again, without being acknowledged. She gestured to one of the servants, and she addressed her host.
“Gracious host!” the Ace of Pumpkins called. “Gracious host, forgive my impatience. I have brought for you, sire, a gift. I had intended to present it at the end of our evening. But I simply cannot wait. I entreat your indulgence for my boldness.”
The servant brought out a single platter covered in a silver dome. He set it down before the King of Clovers and lifted the dome. Sitting on the platter was a most unassuming pie, a small one. Visible to all was the fluted golden crust of shortbread, and the smooth dark orange surface speckled with spice.
“It is a pie of pumpkin, sire,” the Ace said.
The King of Clovers eyed the pie with suspicion. He waved one of his tasters forward.
The taster tried a bite of pie. He stood beside their host for a moment. The pie would have been tested for every known poison—be it natural or magical—while it waited in the kitchens. And the taster suffered no ill, but their host still did not reach for the pie.
“You did not bring enough for all,” their host protested.
“The gift is for my host,” the Ace replied, “not for my fellow guests. I would gladly share a slice with you, but if I eat of that pie, I will know the truth of your third most prized virtue.”
Their host turned his gaze toward the Ace. “What do you mean?”
“The pie is enchanted, sire,” the Ace explained.
“According to the custom of your House, I suppose.” Their host scoffed, and started to gesture for the servants to take the platter away. But then, he hesitated.
The Ace of Pumpkins, after all, was his guest of honor.
“No,” the Ace said. “There is no custom concerning enchanted pies in any House, so far as I know.”
Their host frowned openly at her now. Many a chair scraped the floor, as many guests stiffened in their seats.
“Does my gift displease?” the Ace asked.
“What is it enchanted to do?”
“Reveal the truth.”
Their host curled his fingers into fists. “What do you mean.”
“I can demonstrate, if you permit me a taste. I can reveal the third—”
“No!” The King of Clovers reached for the pie. “I will indulge my guest of honor. I will have a bite. Then we must proceed with dinner before the food grows cold and the evening late.”
He ate but a bite of a pie, and found the taste not too pleasing from the furrow that persisted on his brow. Or perhaps it was the one who brought the pie who was not too pleasing.
Reckless, thought the Ace.
Their host inhaled deeply. He took a sip from his goblet and gestured to the servants. They swept away into the kitchens to bring out the next course.
The King of Clovers rolled his gaze over his guests. He dabbed the corner of his mouth with a napkin.
He dropped the napkin and froze. His eyes grew wide.
He swept out his arms, knocking his goblet to the ground. He flinched and uttered a whimper. His gaze darted left, right, up, to the guests, to the table. With a sudden cry, he jumped back and out of his chair. He threw his arms before his face and stumbled back.
A few rose from their seats, but none went to their host. It might be a trick, after all.
And if they left the table, they would forfeit their place at the dinner.
The King of Clovers backed away until he struck the opposite wall. He slumped against it and slid down. He dared to peek over his arms. Whatever he saw gave him such a fright that he cried out again, drew up his knees, wrapped his arms around them, and buried his face in them, his eyes closed tight. Somehow, his sobs were more sorrowful than that of the lady with the boils.
“What have you done?” the Deuce of Diamonds asked, frowning at the guest of honor.
What I was sent here to do, the Ace thought, with a restrained surprise.
What she said was this. “Our host has left the table.” She rose to her feet, keeping the palm of one hand upon the table. “No one bound to our host as family is present,” she continued. “As guest of honor, this dinner is now my charge. As such, I declare the dinner at an end. I thank all guests for coming, and I bid you all a good night.”
No one stirred. No one challenged her. The Ace of Pumpkins stepped away from the table. She raised both hands and gestured to the servants. They began to clear away the settings. She strode toward their host and knelt before him. His reaction was most curious to her, but she did not say so.
“We must help him,” someone said from behind her. She did not know who it was, but his tone was both forceful and fearful.
The Ace of Pumpkins rose to her feet then swept around to face the gathered guests.
“Then you must leave,” she said. “For he is troubled by whatever terrible truth he sees in you.”
A great commotion of scraping chairs and shuffling feet commenced, as the other guests fled.
If the game was fair, none had need to worry. They had all triumphed over their host. They worried, of course, because they feared the game was not fair.
The Ace understood. The Pumpkin Jack had explained much to her when he explained why he had chosen her.
A low Ace will be too cautious. A high Ace the same, though for different reasons. Who then can we send?
The humble House of Pumpkins, as it turned out, had sent a most unusual envoy. The Ace was asked for. But the Ace who came to the dinner had not been Ace for more than three nights. She had been something else before. Their wildcard.
The last to leave the table were the Deuce of Diamonds, who helped the lady with the boils to rise and slowly walk. As they passed the Ace, she offered her arm, and the three proceeded out of the dining chamber.
“I wonder what the third virtue was,” the Deuce said.
“Hospitality, no doubt,” the Ace of Pumpkins replied. And she grinned as most befitting her house, a wide glowing grin full of square teeth.
Copyright © 2022 Nila L. Patel